Hi honey, I'm so envious of your school's computer software [s20]gratuitous sarcasm[s19]

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Our workplaces are notoriously wary of installing new packages, but we need to modernise

I had a good working relationship with the head of business and computing at one of my schools, but not good enough to treat an email with the subject line, "Hi honey!" with anything less than suspicion.

It turned out that this was the equivalent of a missing cat at the beginning of a horror film, the early indication that something was going wrong. In the case of the rogue email, it was just the first in a large number across the school network that signalled a massive virus infestation that took the system out for a few days.

Schools are understandably wary about this sort of thing and consequently make it difficult to install software on their systems. I mentioned last time about the way the physics community has organised itself in Scotland. Information is often shared on the mailing list about a piece of free software that does wonderful sciencey things. For everyone who welcomes the tip, someone else will be bemoaning the fact that to have the program installed would mean weeks of negotiation with a service provider, perhaps involving secret handshakes and wearing a hat with horns. Thus, the chance to use a Nintendo Wii controller as a substitute for a #163;300 wireless acceleration sensor is denied to thousands.

Sometimes the solution is to use a "legacy" laptop, something deemed too old for general network use [s20]gratuitous sarcasm[s19], ie, about two years if it's from a computingbusiness studies department or eight for anyone else [s20]gratuitous sarcasm[s19]. At least one TESS reader (how do you do, Mr GNU?) will tell you that the best solution is to move to Linux-based systems, saving a whack in the process.

A while ago, I might have answered this by saying that most people don't write sciencey freeware for Linux. However, my pals in the Institute of Physics (IoP) and I got a bit fed up with presenting workshops on wonderful freeware at courses, only to be told that some of our delegates would have virtually no chance of getting it on to a machine, so we did some digging.

The result is that those coming to the IoPSSERC physics teacher summer school, or the next SSERC physics residential course in September, will get a low-cost netbook computer to take back to class. It runs Linux, hooks up to a standard data projector and is preloaded with some of our favourite goodies.

Not only that, anyone who receives an email with the subject line "Hi honey!" on this lovely piece of kit can safely open it, knowing that if it is a virus, rather than evidence of a paradigm shift in a professional relationship, nothing horrible will happen.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

Gregor Steele hopes that the use of computing in-jokes involving [s20][s19] brackets hasn't crashed the TESS typesetting system.

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